What does globalization mean for nationalism?
Share this on

What does globalization mean for nationalism?

There was an interesting comment on my last post by a reader named Omar, which posited the hypothesis that globalization and the increasing inter-connectedness of people(s) through technology spells doom (or at least trouble) for nationalism. This is a fairly popular view amongst certain people but I disagree with it completely, and I think it’s useful to spell out why.

The basic logic of the globalization-leads-to-dampened-nationalism is the following: as people come into contact with each other, and as increasing trade/technology/movement/migration render borders less relevant, people will realize that many of the things they thought about other people were false, and abandon those ancient hatreds. So, for instance, many people who support the Indo-Pak peace process argue for increased “people to people” contacts, in the hope that this will lead to a breaking down of stereotypes and lead to more lovey-dovey feelings.

The reason I disagree with this logic is that increased connectedness is often associated with more stereotyping and hatred of others, rather than less. It’s telling that the literature on nationalism and national identity is quite clear that more communication and interaction tends to increase conflict among peoples. The basic idea is that with increased communication and interaction, you get a better sense of how other people are different from you, leading to more cultural awareness of your identity, leading to an increased salience of ethnic/cultural/linguistic/national differences, leading to more conflict.

There’s plenty of illustrations of this, but I’ll give two here. First, consider that the first traces of a truly national identity in Europe in the pre-modern age were found in university towns, where students from different territories (we can hardly call them countries or nations at that point) formed “national” gangs and groups. This is instructive because university towns were one of the few places that people from different regions actually came into contact with one another in that age. (See Bloom 1993 for more on this).

Second, consider the massive effects the printing press and the spread of vernaculars had on nationalism in early modern Europe. Print capitalism allowed people to tap into, and share, written histories and literatures on a much wider scale than previously possible. In turn, this allowed people to see far beyond their parochial communities in search of people like them and, as importantly, in search of people unlike them. Your sense of belonging to a community will only be reinforced once you realize that there are others out there who are saying the same things as you, and still others out there who are not. (See the grand-daddy of nationalism studies, Anderson 1983 for more on this).

In many ways, the internet and globalization is the Printing Press 2.0. This is why I strongly believe that globalization has and will continue to lead to greater self-awareness of identity rather than less. Think about how internet message boards or comments sections of blogs work: when you see the opinions expressed by the Other, whoever it may be, are you persuaded, or is it just more evidence in your favor for how stupid/primitive/backward/biased/racist/haughty the Other generally is?

XKCD

Credit: XKCD

Think about how increased migration of brown people in Europe has led to a rise in right-wing parties enjoying favor. Think about how large, metropolitan cities such as London or New York see people retreat into predictable geographical distributions, with Xs living in X neighborhood and the ABCs living in the ABC neighborhood (sitting on a subway for its entire route is very instructive in such cities; if you want to see the color of a train change, get on the red line in Chicago at one end and wait until you get to the other).

This is not to suggest that particular cultural/ethnic/national identities cannot die away or their salience can’t decrease; only that increased social communication and interaction per se is not the road one takes to get there.

Topics covered: